Celebrating 50 Years of the UW-Madison Nelson Institute
and Earth Day
Growing Awareness of the Larger Nature
|Kai Lin Brito is a graduate of the UW-Madison Nelson Institute and
now works for Sustain Dane.
By Jonathan Gramling
Kai Lin Brito grew up in Southern California, born in Cypress, but raised in Corona. While
his family struggled financially, his mother always kept beautiful things in their lives, even
if they weren’t necessarily appreciated.
“My mom really liked gardens,” Brito said. “Flowers were big things that she would plant in
the yard. When I was young, I was trying to kill the bees because I thought they were trying
to hurt the flowers. Now, of course, I understand they are pollinators in a wider necessary
When he was 14-years-old, Brito’s family moved to Ft. Atkinson. And like other children
coming out of financially struggling homes, Brito’s future career aspirations were informed
by economics and he was interested in pursuing a career in medicine. And ironically, it
was his enrollment in a Summer Medical Education Program in Seattle that began his road toward a career in environmentalism and sustainability.
During their free time, the students would go for hikes in the surrounding mountains. And those hikes got him thinking about a grander adventurous hike and he
ended up enrolling in the Ceiba Foundation’s study abroad program in Ecuador. After spending time in the Andes Mountains, his program descended down into the
Amazon rainforest. And it was then that Brito had a true awakening.
“We were going up this scaffolding and there were these stairs that spiraled all up the length of this gigantic tree,” Brito recalled. “As soon as we got up, there were
these rope ladders connecting all of these trees together that were a little bit more over the canopy than the others. When you were up there on those rope ladders, if
you looked down, you could see how high up you were. You realized, ‘I’m in the canopy of the trees. I’m looking over this entire rainforest right here.’ There were
only a few other trees that were up above it. Seeing this endless expanse of trees was a powerful moment. I realized this was a system that is bigger than me. And
they all were all individual and they make up something together. That’s what I really liked about it. And that’s when I changed my major to environmental science.”
Brito studied environmental science and GIS at the Nelson Institute. And after graduation, he has stayed connected with the institute although now he spends the
bulk of his work hours working for Sustain Dane.
“Sustain Dane is a local sustainability non-profit,” Brito said. “What they do is try to help businesses and organizations be aware of sustainability and kind of show
the way for other people to encourage them to be more sustainable through different metrics. And those metrics are like financially sustainable, environmentally
sustainable, and personal health sustainability. It’s like financial health, personal wellbeing and obvious the climate and the environment side of sustainability that
we really focus in on.”
Brito has been working on workforce housing that incorporates sustainability and has also been working on a video project that allows people to find their
“We call them our sustainability stories,” Brito said. “We take footage of subjects and help them tell their stories of sustainability. A couple of the people whom we
have interviewed are Stephanie Salgado. She is a climate change activist at the university. She is one of the people who planned the Madison Youth Climate Strike.
We filmed TetraPAKMAN. He’s a local artist who focuses on sustainability and plastic bags. I’ve had the chance to work with them and just get their perspective on
sustainability and help them get their word out there. It’s really uplifting to work with them because I learn so much.”
In this 50th year of the UW-Madison Nelson Institute, Brito feels that his generation needs to pick up the environmental mantle to ensure that future generations will
enjoy what we can enjoy today.
“For me, it makes me think back on the legacy that Gaylord Nelson has been put before me,” Brito said. “It’s our legacy to pick up now. Now we have to do
something with it. I am primed in a place where I chose to dedicate my academic studies to that. And now I have a career in that field. I’m thinking, ‘Okay, we have
to do something. And it has to be big. The challenge is big, so the action has to be huge to match that.’ I think we need more action. I think we need to convince
people of that. And I think a lot of people are trying to understand that. Folks just don’t want to do or make the changes. But I am a believer in collective action. If we
can just get everyone to start making small changes, maybe they won’t even realize how much of a difference it makes. And we will start seeing the effects
In Brito’s view, it boils down to collective and individual action if we are going to turn the environmental tide. On the policy side, Brito is perplexed that
environmentalism is so politicized.
“I am a U.S. citizen and I am allowed to have an opinion,” Brito said with a laugh. “Obviously I would like the Environmental Protection Agency to take a greater
priority within the U.S. government. That will happen if people demand it. If we can convince enough people how important it is — and I do think people realize it —
because with the pandemic and the social distancing, everyone wants to go to a national park. That’s nature. I don’t know why it is so politicized to take care of the
environment. We need to be good stewards of our land. I don’t understand why we make caring for the environment so political because it doesn’t need to be right
And we also need to take individual action.
“Having individuals take part and make these changes is important,” Brito said. “For individual action, use fewer things. If we just stopped using as much energy, a
lot of these problems would be solved. If we stopped wasting as much food and other materials that we do, this wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is that we are
so used to our lifestyle of convenience that we just don’t understand how much energy it takes to even turn on a light nowadays. Obviously most of our energy use
comes from refrigeration and heating/cooling. You don’t think about it because you don’t see it. It’s like this collective invisible thread. Unless you are educated
about it, you don’t start caring about it.”
And unless people start to take action now, the reason to take action will figuratively slap them in the face.
“You will when you start seeing the impact like sea water levels rising and all of these natural disasters happening with hurricanes and flooding,” Brito said. “All of
these natural preserves are starting to go away. I was in Iceland just a year ago in the winter. It looked kind of sad. These are not the natural beauties that people
knew 50 years ago at the start of Earth Day. Luckily these people had the foresight to start protecting it for our generation now. Now we are the generation. We need
to make sure it is there for years to come. If we have even half as much of it,
imagine what they are going to have 50 years from now. On the 100th anniversary
of Earth Day, I want to make sure that were still around to talk about this and not
have to look back and say, ‘What were you thing?’ I want to look back and say,
‘Wow, I’m glad you took action.’ I want to be that person. I want to be that person
who cared enough about it and actually made an impact. I don’t need name
recognition. I just want to know that a difference was made. That’s why I do the
work that I do.”
And Brito feels that it is vital that people of color get engaged in
environmentalism and sustainability because whether they realize it or not, they
have the most to lose with the degradation of the planet.
“I don’t think I have any other choice in the matter of looking at this in terms of
people of color being affected by this,” Brito said. “You look at the health
outcomes like asthma in the city, that’s an issue and I don’t like knowing that at
places where I grew up, people who look like me, people who come from where I
come from are being affected by this. And obviously I want to make a difference.
They aren’t out here to do that. So I need to do it for them because I remember
back in the day, those weren’t my concerns. I remember just wondering about
how they are going to live. I didn’t think about something global, bigger than
myself like climate change and global warming. Those concepts didn’t really
matter to me because they never had to. But now that I have the privilege of going
to the university and getting scholarships to get my education, now I have to go
back and fight for those things for my people and the community.”
A global crisis will take a global effort.